Sunday, June 28, 2015

"Should I do a Philosophy PhD?"

Will MacAskill is seeking feedback on the 80,000 Hours advice page he's written for those who ask the question: "I want to make a difference. Should I become a philosopher?", with a full profile evaluating the PhD in Philosophy (from an "effective altruist" perspective) here.

It seems generally pretty accurate to me.  The one thing that really jumped out to me is the mere middling score currently assigned for "job satisfaction".  Will rightly stresses that it's incredibly difficult to secure a permanent job in philosophy (which I assume is reflected in its receiving the lowest possible score on "ease of competition").  But for those of us fortunate enough to make it, I really do think it's the best job in the world.  I certainly can't imagine anything else I'd rather do, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. (See, e.g., the comments in this thread.)

I also think he may be underestimating the possible impact of teaching.  Even if it's true that most philosophy students will eventually come across Singer's pond argument, etc., regardless of who their teachers are, I think it can make a difference how these things are taught -- whether it's approached as a merely intellectual puzzle, or in a more practically engaged way that really challenges us to reflect on our values and how to live in a way that's (more or less) consistent with those values. I suspect that having a supportive faculty member may make students more likely to set up a local Giving What We Can chapter, further spreading and normalizing "effective altruist" ideas.  And there are often opportunities to speak to wider audiences -- for example, I just gave a couple of mini-lectures on this material for our recent University Open Days, and had multiple parents approach me afterwards to express their interest in learning more about effective charities, etc.  Hard to know how much of an effect any of this has, of course, but it's at least encouraging.  And none of this requires being a research superstar: it's stuff that any ethics lecturer can easily do.

So, that's my 2 cents.  What do you think?


  1. To me these are exactly the wrong times to be a philosopher, and that makes them exactly the right ones.

    We have a skewed understanding of reality and life, lending right to a skewed, underestimated image of philosophers, but that is actually what makes our work so important.

    That we are all so critical, questioning everything, that hence that unhealthy sense of competition in our world affects us, too, or even more, should lead us to revisit how we can best work together though.

    I am, however, still getting to know the field myself.

  2. On job satisfaction: I agree. That’s meant to be an average across the positions you should expect to get - if you get a tenure, that's awesome, but before that point, and if you end up in ongoing positions, then job insecurity and lack of geographical choice are big factors. Obviously that's a judgment call.

    On teaching: Yes, as I say this is something I’ve very unsure about. What influences me is that I don’t know of any examples on the table of philosophers who have had very large impact via teaching. A number of people have come into the effective altruism community has a result of going to Peter Singer’s courses, but a much smaller number than those who have become involved through his writing.


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